Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Forum on Daniel Rodgers's Age of Fracture in April Issue of Historically Speaking

Randall Stephens

Over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog there's been a lively discussion and debate generated by Daniel Rodgers's new book Age of Fracture. We add a little to that here with a selection from the forum on the book in the new issue of Historically Speaking. (View the full April 2011 issue on Project Muse. Use your college, university, or library connection for full access.)


Historians and other observers of postwar America note the dramatic social and political changes underway since the 1960s. It was, as Daniel Rodgers puts it, an age marked by discontinuity, shifting party allegiances, and social fracture. An intellectual and cultural historian, Daniel Rodgers is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History and director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of four books, including: The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 (University of Chicago Press, 1978), winner of the Organization of American Historians’ Frederick Jackson Turner Prize; Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics (Basic Books, 1987); and Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Harvard University Press, 1998), which won the American Historical Association’s Beer Prize and the Organization of American Historians’s Hawley Prize. His latest book, The Age of Fracture (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), argues that in the 1970s Americans began to think of the country in terms of choice-making individuals rather than as a society shaped by classes, interests, and norms. Historically Speaking asked Bruce Schulman, Melani McAlister, Michael Kimmage, and Donald Critchlow to comment on Rodgers’s short essay about this shift in American thought. Their comments are followed by Rodgers’s response. (Citations of Rodgers’s book are in parentheses.)

Daniel Rodgers, "Age of Fracture," Historically Speaking (April 2011)

The history of the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century seems to constitute, at first glance, a maze of paradoxes. It was the age of Reagan, conservative partisans said at the time: a moment of deep political reversal. Peggy Noonan, one of the most gifted of Reagan’s speechwriters, joined the White House staff to be present at “the Reagan revolution.”1 Political managers dreamed of a realignment election that would change the very frame of partisan politics, and political scientists pored over election results to see if they could discern that one had occurred. A sense of the world as shifting rapidly beneath one’s feet was widespread, but, for all of Reagan’s symbolic prominence, the notion of a clear political watershed turned out to be an illusion.

Party allegiances shifted dramatically in the last quarter of the century, particularly among white southern voters; a new and highly energized conservative political movement came into being; but the realignment election that would give the Republican Party a permanent majority failed to occur. Closely fought elections, divided governance, and an increasingly divided electorate have marked the last three decades’ politics, not a new consensus. Even Reagan himself, Noonan wistfully admitted, “wasn’t a revolutionary; he wasn’t a missile drawn to the heat of a new idea.”2 The battles over taxes and regulation that Reagan’s election precipitated represented no revolutionary break with history. Even the “culture wars” and their partisan mobilization of religious loyalties replayed long-standing strains in 20th-century American politics.

A stronger argument for discontinuity can be made for the structures of the late 20th-century economy. The global economic crisis of the 1970s with which the era began, buffeted by oil price shocks and inflation, was a prelude to wide-ranging transformations in the domestic and global economies. Squeezed by new cost pressures, compromises between labor and management unraveled. Union membership spiraled precipitously downward. Manufacture went global in search of cheaper labor. Finance capitalism emerged out of the crisis stronger than ever before, fueled by new and more exotic investment instruments and new investor ambitions for corporate restructuring. The derogatory “age of greed” label reflects a simplistic reading of the moral tone of the era, but the phrase had its structural basis, as David Harvey and others have argued, in the collapse of the Fordist economy of the middle years of the century.3

And yet the age of materialism, global markets, ascendant financial capitalism, new political ambitions, and an intensely politicized punditry was also, and in many ways more fundamentally, a period of deep transformations in social thought. It was here, on the terrain in which Noonan thought her hero Reagan to have been least adept, that the discontinuities of the era were most pronounced. A whole vocabulary of concepts that had once seemed the common sense of social thought weakened and new languages took their place. The age of Reagan, the “age of greed,” was simultaneously, and more importantly, an age of transformation in ideas.

“A war of ideas,” conservatives often called it, but it was much less structured by partisan polarities than has often been understood. Ideas flowed quickly into politics through more aggressively partisan think tanks and more aggressively partisan funders of books and university research. But ideas simultaneously slipped across the political blocs, often incongruously and unpredictably. Deregulation was a radical project before it became a conservative one. The first practical school voucher proposals were the work of liberal social scientists. Libertarian ideas infiltrated social thought, leaving a trail across both Left and Right. >>> read on

See also the four comments and Rodgers's response:

Bruce Schulman, "Daniel Rodgers's (New) Consensus History"

Melani McAlister, "Popular Media in an Age of Fracture"

Michael Kimmage, "A Response to Age of Fracture"

Donald T. Critchlow, "On a Darkling Plain"

Daniel Rodgers, "A New Consensus?"


hcr said...

Randall: This is terrific. Can't wait for my hard copy to arrive. I find it intoxicating that we are finally getting to a point where we can get some historical grasp on the past thirty years rather than simply responding to what's right in front of us.

LD said...

I went to Project Muse right away and downloaded the .pdfs. I'm planning to write a commentary on the whole forum on my blog, but can't allow myself to do that until I get my seminar paper finished. Writing about the forum will be my reward for getting my work done.

'Cause that's how I roll: nerd style.

Randall said...

LD: I love your embrace of the "nerd" designation. Keepin' it real!